First seen in New York in 1918, Il trittico is Puccini's greatest achievement: a trio of one-act operas that with varying degrees of tenderness or savagery skewer the disconnect between public and private morals. Puccini's publisher thought it a dreadful idea, too long, too expensive, and, in the case of the central panel of the triptych, Suor Angelica, too unappealing. Now, for the first time since 1965, all three can be seen at the Royal Opera House as Richard Jones's new productions of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica join his 2007 production of Gianni Schicchi. Pungently descriptive, unflinching in its dissection of suffering, deft in its comedy of avarice and snobbery, it is an A-Z of Puccini. Or, to Puccini-haters, lurid, mawkish and slight.
In a season otherwise dominated by revivals, Il trittico is a bold gesture. From the soot-blackened Seine of 1940s Paris in Il tabarro (designs by Ultz) to the worn lino of a 1950s children's sanitorium in Suor Angelica (Miriam Buether) and the greasy cabbage-rose wallpaper of Buoso Donati's 1960s bedroom (John Macfarlane) in Gianni Schicchi, the cords that bind each work to the others are found in Jones's and Sarah Fahie's buckling, jack-knifed movement direction and in conductor Antonio Pappano's manipulation of the orchestral sound.
Il tabarro opens with a freeze-frame. In Ultz's steep-walled Parisian wharf, all backs are broken by poverty, from the sweat-stained stevedores to the sweatshop seamstresses who are serenaded in The Ballad of Mimi by the Song Seller (Ji-Min Park). Only Michele (Lucio Gallo) sits erect, his eyes fixed on retribution. Dangerous currents of cellos and basses pulse beneath the soundscape of river traffic, manual labour, cheap wine and cheap music, the curt blast of sirens, the cock-eyed melody of the hurdy-gurdy, Tinca's alcoholic rage (Alan Oke), Talpa and Frugola's well-rehearsed dream of a little cottage (Jeremy White and Irina Mishura), the tense cartoonish jive of desire between Michele's wife Giorgetta (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Luigi (Aleksandrs Antonenko).
Both lovers are trapped: she "between the bed and the stove", he in "a moment of pleasure between fear and pain". Both are doomed. Where Michele cannot bear to forget his dead son, Giorgetta cannot bear to remember. And where Gallo guards his voice, pacing himself for a return to the stage as the wily Schicchi, Westbroek goes on an Anna Nicole-esque spending-spree, squandering that voluptuous voice on "E ben altro il mio sogno", hands fluttering at her sides or pressing her empty womb. Heavy-shouldered and bright-voiced, Antonenko turns Luigi from rent-a-hunk cypher to working-class hero.
Sick children surround the heroine of Suor Angelica, some of them in need of a hefty dose of Calpol if they're to keep still. Here the smoky veils of strings and flutes become sheer haloes of sound in a bitter satire on atonement and clemency. The influence of Powell and Pressburger is felt in Buether's colours and in the Deborah Kerr-like stillness of Angelica herself. Ermonela Jaho's body is almost snapped in half by the vicious verbal assault from the Principessa (Anna Larsson) and the news that her illegitimate son is dead, her pale, pearly voice a naked wail of misery in "Senza mamma". There is no redemption here, just a scrambled rush to cover the corpse of a mother made mad by grief. Among the supporting cast, Anna Devin is outstanding as Sister Genovieffa.
The full vibrancy and versatility of the orchestra is unleashed in the third opera, Gianni Schicchi, brilliantly coloured and propelled by Pappano as the Donati family conspire to cheat their local monastery of Buoso's legacy. Gallo steps into Bryn Terfel's string vest with a confident swagger, just the right side of ham as Ekaterina Siurina's Lauretta winds him round her little finger in "O mio babbino caro". Francesco Demuro is a handsome, eager Rinuccio, Elena Zilio the queen bee of the family. The comic timing is split-second accurate, the ensemble work superb, most particularly in Zilio's trio with Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca) and Rebecca Evans (Nella). Four years on, this Gianni Schicchi has lost none of its energy or wit.
The atrium of Kings Place gleamed in the dazzle of Janacek's Sinfonietta last weekend, as Aurora Orchestra's brass players serenaded diners, drinkers and concert-goers between three programmes curated by pianist Ivana Gavric. As demonstrated in her recent recording of the sonata From the Street, Gavric has Janacek's music completely under her fingers: the plaintiveness, irascibility, humour and turbulence. There's a quality to her sound, something peppery, dark and candid, that Aurora's players couldn't quite match in the Violin Sonata, Pohadka or the barbed Capriccio for left hand, brass and flute. Though the technical standard was high, the playing was too reserved, too polite.
Surprise sell-out of the week was Apartment House's John Cage Night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in which a thousand people sat in nervous silence through pianist Philip Thomas's (rather fast) performance of 4'33". As in Cage's art works, exhibited next door at the Hayward Gallery, moments of genius rub along with moments of what-the-heck daffiness: the mysterious beauty of Radio Music, the stale silliness of 0'00". Excepting String Quartet in Four Parts, with its glancing harmonics, this was more a celebration of the listening process than a celebration of music. Who knew a cactus could sound so interesting, or a flute so bland?
'Il trittico' (020-7304 4000) to 27 Sep
Christian Gerhaher sings Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang at London's Wigmore Hall (Wed, Thu & Sat). Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO launch a season with Mussorgsky at the Festival Hall (Wed). At Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall (Sat), Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic turn to Dvorák, Ravel and Tchaikovsky.Reuse content